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Francis T. O’Brien, Jr. is the founder of O'Brien Law Boston, a criminal law specialty firm. Formerly of counsel/director of criminal practice grou... (more)

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LEGAL TERMS

BURDEN OF PROOF

A party's job of convincing the decisionmaker in a trial that the party's version of the facts is true. In a civil trial, it means that the plaintiff must convi... (more...)
A party's job of convincing the decisionmaker in a trial that the party's version of the facts is true. In a civil trial, it means that the plaintiff must convince the judge or jury 'by a preponderance of the evidence' that the plaintiff's version is true -- that is, over 50% of the believable evidence is in the plaintiff's favor. In a criminal case, because a person's liberty is at stake, the government has a harder job, and must convince the judge or jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.

BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT

The burden of proof that the prosecution must carry in a criminal trial to obtain a guilty verdict. Reasonable doubt is sometimes explained as being convinced '... (more...)
The burden of proof that the prosecution must carry in a criminal trial to obtain a guilty verdict. Reasonable doubt is sometimes explained as being convinced 'to a moral certainty.' The jury must be convinced that the defendant committed each element of the crime before returning a guilty verdict.

ARREST

A situation in which the police detain a person in a manner that, to any reasonable person, makes it clear she is not free to leave. A person can be 'under arre... (more...)
A situation in which the police detain a person in a manner that, to any reasonable person, makes it clear she is not free to leave. A person can be 'under arrest' even though the police have not announced it; nor are handcuffs or physical restraint necessary. Questioning an arrested person about her involvement in or knowledge of a crime must be preceded by the Miranda warnings if the police intend to use the answers against the person in a criminal case. If the arrested person chooses to remain silent, the questioning must stop.

SEARCH WARRANT

An order signed by a judge that directs owners of private property to allow the police to enter and search for items named in the warrant. The judge won't issue... (more...)
An order signed by a judge that directs owners of private property to allow the police to enter and search for items named in the warrant. The judge won't issue the warrant unless she has been convinced that there is probable cause for the search -- that reliable evidence shows that it's more likely than not that a crime has occurred and that the items sought by the police are connected with it and will be found at the location named in the warrant. In limited situations the police may search without a warrant, but they cannot use what they find at trial if the defense can show that there was no probable cause for the search.

MISDEMEANOR

A crime, less serious than a felony, punishable by no more than one year in jail. Petty theft (of articles worth less than a certain amount), first-time drunk d... (more...)
A crime, less serious than a felony, punishable by no more than one year in jail. Petty theft (of articles worth less than a certain amount), first-time drunk driving and leaving the scene of an accident are all common misdemeanors.

GRAND JURY

In criminal cases, a group that decides whether there is enough evidence to justify an indictment (formal charges) and a trial. A grand jury indictment is the f... (more...)
In criminal cases, a group that decides whether there is enough evidence to justify an indictment (formal charges) and a trial. A grand jury indictment is the first step, after arrest, in any formal prosecution of a felony.

ACCOMPLICE

Someone who helps another person (known as the principal) commit a crime. Unlike an accessory, an accomplice is usually present when the crime is committed. An ... (more...)
Someone who helps another person (known as the principal) commit a crime. Unlike an accessory, an accomplice is usually present when the crime is committed. An accomplice is guilty of the same offense and usually receives the same sentence as the principal. For instance, the driver of the getaway car for a burglary is an accomplice and will be guilty of the burglary even though he may not have entered the building.

INTERROGATION

A term that describes vigorous questioning, usually by the police of a suspect in custody. Other than providing his name and address, the suspect is not obligat... (more...)
A term that describes vigorous questioning, usually by the police of a suspect in custody. Other than providing his name and address, the suspect is not obligated to answer the questions, and the fact that he has remained silent generally cannot be used by the prosecution to help prove that he is guilty of a crime. If the suspect has asked for a lawyer, the police must cease questioning. If they do not, they cannot use the answers against the suspect at trial.

INTENTIONAL TORT

A deliberate act that causes harm to another, for which the victim may sue the wrongdoer for damages. Acts of domestic violence, such as assault and battery, ar... (more...)
A deliberate act that causes harm to another, for which the victim may sue the wrongdoer for damages. Acts of domestic violence, such as assault and battery, are intentional torts (as well as crimes).

SAMPLE LEGAL CASES

BRESTEN v. BOARD OF APPEAL ON MOTOR VEHICLE LIABILITY POLICIES & BONDS

... "Prior to the numerous amendments [that resulted in the statutory scheme], [driving under the influence] DUI had been interpreted as an impairment to the `slightest degree' by the consumption of alcoholic liquor." Thompson v. Colorado, 181 Colo. ...

BRESTEN v. BOARD OF APPEAL ON MOTOR VEHICLE LIABILITY POLICIES AND BONDS

... "Prior to the numerous amendments [that resulted in the statutory scheme], DUI [(or driving under the influence)] had been interpreted as an impairment to the `slightest degree' by the consumption of alcoholic liquor." Thompson v. Colorado, 181 Colo. ...

Commonwealth v. Putnam

... the police. The defendant became afraid; he recently had been involved in two "DUI" (driving under the influence) cases and had been warned that if he was convicted of a third offense he would go to jail for six months. 476 ...